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Mark Harmon Oral History Interview, November 11, 2020

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Mark Harmon Oral History Interview, November 11, 2020


Mark Harmon began his work at Andrews Forest in the early 1980s and created an indelible mark with establishment of the 200-year log decomposition experiment in 1985 while a graduate student at Oregon State University working with Jerry Franklin. This LTER project became a statement of the importance of long-term ecological science, representing the critical need to take a very long view to encompass the processes operating in a forest. His career featured carbon science, and he served as Andrews Forest LTER Principal Investigator in 2002-2008.

Harmon begins the interview by discussing the definition of an ecosystem as biotic and abiotic components and their interactions. He goes on to discuss ecosystem science as the study of stores and flows of material and energy. When asked if ecosystems are dynamic or static, he speaks about the importance of scale in assessing ecosystem dynamism, including drawing examples from the wildfires that occurred shortly before the interview. He describes his approach to science as “triangulation” among observation, experimentation, and modeling, noting strengths and limitations of each, and also the importance of moving among scales and levels of biological organization. He acknowledges strong influence of thinking about biocomplexity popular in the early 2000s and earlier multi-scale thinking led by several folks from Oak Ridge National Lab, who were also interested in how ecosystems behaved at different scales. He offers some examples from long-term forest ecology studies to argue for appreciating the complexity. A self-described “generalist”, he claims interests at community, population, ecosystem, and landscape scales of biological organization. His approach begins with assessing the state of science and then going after topics that need to be advanced. He outlines steps forward from there, but also some of the challenges to conducting experiments in big old forest ecosystems. A question about objectivity in science leads Harmon to explain how it may be an ideal, but humans have biases and blind spots, which he describes with an example of thinking in a manuscript he reviewed on effects of forestry on carbon storage which ignores dead wood, a favorite topic of his. He comments on how scientific thinking and funding can encourage people to reside in silos. Prompted by a question about use of the scientific method, the conversation turns to the importance of being very critical of one’s own thinking and to always be open to other explanations. He notes there are few laws of nature, with exceptions such as in thermodynamics, but conservation of mass is an important one in his carbon science. He cites a combination of motivations for his science, and discovery is a big one. He discusses discovery in favorite activities, like music, woodworking, and fishing, but in his carbon science he is frustrated by scientists or others who seek a policy outcome and that gets in the way.

The next section of questions begins with the role of natural history in the Andrews program and Harmon begins with the story of entering Amherst College wishing to study natural history, but the college had done away with it because it wasn’t rigorous science. He goes on to describe how inter-disciplinarity has been built at Andrews by telling one another’s stories and a sense for the natural history emerges from the continuing observations and reconsideration of the stories. He expounds on the loose LTER organization of the science around a central, unanswerable question, rather than a particular philosophy. He elaborates on the intersection of simulation modeling, long-term observations, and constant reassessment of the story. He is particularly keen on mechanistic models, but statistical, analytical models have roles in discovery, also. He briefly argues that hypothesis testing on a grand scale using large-scale, manipulative experiments is very limited in the big, old forests of Andrews, but there has been some.

Harmon discusses major findings from the Andrews program and features the work on old growth highlighted by the 1981 paper led by Jerry Franklin. He also commends the ecological forestry work and he is especially enthusiastic about the engagement of the arts and humanities – there are many forms of discovery, he says. In his view the community dimension of the Andrews program has attracted some participants, but been rejected by others.


Mark Harmon


H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest Oral History Collection (OH 28)


Special Collections and Archives Research Center, Oregon State University Libraries


November 11, 2020


Sara Khatib


Born Digital Video




Oral History



Oral History Item Type Metadata


Sara Khatib


Mark Harmon


Interview conducted over Zoom

Original Format

Born Digital Video



OHMS Object

Interview Format


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